The Illusion of Control

Always on the lookout for rare corporate authenticity, I listened to the group from a Fargo, North Dakota manufacturing plant as they spoke at an ethics luncheon sponsored by The Center for Ethical Leadership at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. Pete, the quality guy, was high-energy and exuded enthusiasm — a true believer in the work he did.  Walt, the president of the company, was humble and soft-spoken.

They talked of their workplace  and new tools like self-managed work teams, open book management, and continuous learning, along with the various methods of the quality movement they excelled in. I was more interested in their depth, passion, idealism, and human connection than in the tools they used to organize and express themselves — as interesting as those programs were.

Walt invited me to visit the plant. I talked with him and other plant leaders for two energized hours. Someone expressed concern for the sustainability of their innovative work. I told them they could think of their work as a beautiful garden that they nurtured with loving care. And I told them how a guy in a pickup truck could destroy their garden in a moment. Successful change efforts get destroyed every day in the corporate world by mindless and sometimes malicious executives.

The dominant culture of the corporation eventually pushed Walt out. Committed to ethics, authenticity, and employee engagement, Walt took over a plant in the middle of America. The plant owner had visited the Fargo plant and wanted Walt to transform his plant. As the plant turnaround took off, the owner complained to Walt that things felt out of control; he felt out of control.

Things felt out of control?

I think the owner wanted a feel-good quick fix: easy, fast, and comfortable. He apparently didn’t understand that fear, anxiety, and feeling inadequate and out of control go with organizational transformation and that deep change can’t happen without inner turmoil. Dealing with fear, loss, anxiety, and the loss of control evolves us as people and from the changes in us our organizations change. Under stress, people often try to return to an earlier state of comfort─a sure step towards decline. If people understood that their discomfort would pass if they embraced it, they would grow to a new level of understanding─a sure step towards sustainability.

I knew many executives over the years who said they supported employee involvement until the day came when they felt they were not in control─a sign that change was happening. Then their dark sides took over, and they sabotaged the employees who did what the executives had told them to do.

Our cosmos is not a vast machine that we control. She is a living system: chaotic, complex, and ever creative.

The belief that we are in control is an illusion.

Walt, a wise and resilient man, now leads a plant in the Eastern part of the country.

2 thoughts on “The Illusion of Control

  1. I love how applicable this excellent mid-western corporate example is to all of life, but that shouldn’t be surprising.
    My own passions move along the lines of “self-help” modalities, as a “student” of them and as a “teacher” of them.
    One main theme of my work is an adaptation of the work of Cedar Barstow — “Right Use of Power” — which has a huge connection to the concept of “control” and what it means and where it comes from and how to work with it to achieve the results you write about here, Tom.
    More than 20 years ago, I had my own experience with the owner of a property who invited me to form and “manage” it as a spiritual community. I told him I would only do it if we could agree on some parameters which I thought were essential for success.
    He agreed, and I began the adventure, but three years in he realized he no longer had complete power/control over the decisions that needed to be made for the people-related uses of the property… and unfortunately he was not willing to share that responsibility with those who actually lived on the property. I found it necessary to leave.
    This person was acknowledged within the larger community as being very “evolved”, but he hadn’t been able to let go of his need for “control.”
    It is so very interesting how this idea permeates all facets of our lives, and what “freedom” can be achieved by letting go.
    Thanks for reminding me of all this, through your thoughts about The Illusion!!


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